June 30, 2019
The Second Sunday after Trinity
(Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62)
59 years ago, on July 4, 1960, the 50-star flag of the United States was flown for the first time in Philadelphia. The 50th star was added because Hawaii had been admitted as the 50th state only the year before.
We’ve now had 59 years of 50 stars.
That feels kind of neat and complete, doesn’t it? For years, there’s been talk of adding Puerto Rico as a 51st state, and debate tends to swirl around extreme political, economic and cultural issues.
As human beings, we like certain numbers. And this goes way back. Since ancient times, people have attached symbolic significance to numbers. For the Israelites, the number one signified uniqueness or undivided wholeness. The book of Deuteronomy says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (6:4).
Three is largely regarded as a divine number. When Abraham is visited by three mysterious men by the oaks of Mamre, he comes to realize that the Lord is visiting him (Genesis 18:1-15). Christians later affirm that God is a Trinity, one God in three persons.
The number seven signifies completeness and perfection. In ancient Israel, the great festivals lasted seven days, and every seventh year was a Sabbath year. Twelve is also seen as a number of completeness and perfection: Israel had 12 tribes, and Jesus had 12 disciples.
What did the apostles do after Judas betrayed Jesus and committed suicide? They quickly cast lots and selected Matthias to replace him (Acts 1:26). Eleven apostles just didn’t seem complete. Of course, in later years they added many more to the 12.
So here we are with 50 states and 50 stars — in the minds of some people, completeness and perfection. But life in America is never perfect and complete. When the Declaration of Independence was signed, its words described the beginning of a process, not the end. It was a Declaration of Incompleteness.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The pursuit of happiness. That phrase alone shows us that our work is never finished.
On this Independence Day, 59 years after the addition of the 50th star, it’s appropriate for us, as Christians in America, to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. Fifty-nine years ago, it wasn’t at all clear that “all men are created equal” because segregation was enforced in many parts of our country. Black men and women were treated as second-class citizens. It took a massive civil-rights movement to outlaw racial discrimination and move us closer to a society in which all people are accepted as equals.
But are we there yet? Not quite. We are seeing discrimination increase as of late, instead of decrease.
We need to add a few more stars to the flag on this Independence Day — stars that have nothing to do with the addition of new states. The first star to add is equality.
Notice how theological the Declaration of Independence is on this point: “all men are created equal.” It doesn’t say born equal — it says created equal. Creation requires a divine Creator, and as Christians we believe that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). It seems we have forgotten that all our races originated from the two God originally created. We are all distantly related in some way.
This anniversary is the perfect day to look at ourselves as people created in the image of God, with tremendous intellectual, spiritual and relational gifts. Psalm 8 tells us that the Lord has made human beings “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (8:5).
That’s who we are, according to Scripture. A little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor. And that’s who our neighbors are as well: the brother and sister who are descendants of an American slave, the working-class family from El Salvador across the street, the single mom with three kids in the grocery store, the unwanted child in need of adoption, the wealthy attorney with a broken marriage and a drinking problem, the same sex couple on the next block whose house has been egged a few times, the father and daughter who drowned at our southern border. It’s time to break out of our categories and caricatures and begin to see each other as equals — as brothers and sisters, created in the image of God.
Only then can we reach out to each other with love and compassion and understanding, accepting each other as the Lord accepts each one of us.
This anniversary is also the day to focus on a life of service to God. The Declaration of Independence describes life as an unalienable right, but as Christians we believe that God has given us life so we can give it back to him. In Luke 20, Jesus illustrates this point quite clearly when a group of spies come to him, sent by the Jewish chief priests and scribes. They’re trying to trap him and hand him over to the authority of the Roman governor. They ask Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus perceives their craftiness, realizing that a “yes” answer will get him in trouble with the Jews and a “no” answer will put him in hot water with the Romans. So he says, “Show me a denarius.” (Jesus is pretty crafty himself, revealing that even these pious Jews carry Roman coins!)
“Whose head and whose title does it bear?” asks Jesus. They say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus says to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:20-25).
On one level, Jesus is giving a simple “separation of church and state” answer, which would certainly please Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Religious Freedom. Jesus is saying that we are to give to the state the things that belong to the state, including our fair share of taxes and other obligations of citizenship. Once we’ve taken care of the state’s business, we can give to God the things that belong to God. This is an important separation, keeping the state out of the church’s business and the church out of the state’s. (Which is why I try to refrain from speaking about our president - difficult to be sure!)
But on a deeper level, Jesus is saying that the emperor’s money is hardly worthy of consideration. It’s as though he’s stating, “The denarius belongs to the emperor, so give it to him. It means nothing to God!” What really matters is that we give ourselves completely to God — heart, mind and spirit. Just as the image of the emperor is stamped on the Roman coin, the image of God is stamped on each one of us. When we give ourselves to God, we are giving to God the things that are God’s.
We do this whenever we use our intellectual, spiritual and relational gifts to advance God’s work in the world. Helping a low-income family develop a budget, praying for the sick and the suffering at a service of healing, gathering a small group for Bible study or a mission project — all these are ways of giving our life to God. We aren’t our own; we are the Lord’s. God has given us life so we can give it back to God.
This Fourth of July is also the day to concentrate on liberty and on the freedom we have as Christians. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were anxious to escape from the tyranny of the king of Great Britain, but our bondage today is to another tyrant — human sinfulness. In John 8, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (8:34). We understand how sin can trap us because we’ve discovered how gambling makes us want to gamble more, whether we win or lose. We’ve found that drinking problems tend to get worse instead of better until we discover that we’re powerless over alcohol and need professional help. We’ve come to see how cheating gets easier and easier until we get caught. And then we’re trapped. As humans, all of us have our addictions - some good, but many bad.
But there is a way out. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” says Jesus, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31-32). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. When we follow him, we gain freedom from sin and a new, abundant life. “If the Son makes you free,” promises Jesus, “you will be free indeed” (8:36).
Each of us needs forgiveness. Each of us needs independence from slavery to sin. The good news is that we gain this freedom when we put our trust in Christ and follow him in faith.
Independence Day is also the day to recommit ourselves to the pursuit of happiness — for ourselves and for all of our fellow citizens. As Christians, we know that happiness isn’t an isolated and individual experience. Instead, it comes from being part of a community in which God’s abundant goodness is shared and enjoyed by all. In his first letter, Peter gives this practical advice to the Christian community of his day: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:16-17).
Peter wants us to live as free people but warns us about using our Declaration of Independence as a permission slip to do evil. Putting what’s good for us ahead of what’s good for all simply isn’t a Christian option. We are called to honor everyone, love the family of believers, fear God and honor the emperor. Advancing ourselves while abusing others simply doesn’t fit this equation.
Equality. Service to God. Christian freedom. Pursuing happiness in community. The addition of these stars will certainly create an awkward 54-star flag, which isn’t going to be anyone’s idea of a complete and perfect banner for our country. But unless we focus on these goals, we’re going to find ourselves living in an increasingly segregated, self-serving, sin-saturated and self-centered society.
We should add these new stars and move a little closer to becoming a nation where all of God’s children can enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Completeness and perfection will never be captured by flags but will be found only in a relationship with the One who has created us and called us to be his own.
We’ll continue to declare our incompleteness until we are one with the one Lord God. This is a union that will happen beyond the stars …
And the stripes.
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that he asks more from us than half-hearted commitment. Let us today listen to his call and make a new resolution to join him in our every action and see him in everyone we meet. We pray to the Lord.
For our country, as we celebrate Independence Day later this week, that we may realize our dependence on God and on each other and our call to care for the poor and disenfranchised. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are bound up in cycles of violence and abuse, that they will be set free through our efforts. We pray to the Lord.
At this time of political turmoil throughout the world, we pray that those entrusted with government are ever mindful of their responsibilities and work for the benefit of all their people and not their personal designs. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those volunteers working with the poor and the sick throughout the world. We pray particularly for those involved in fighting the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We pray that the world hears their appeals for help and that the spread of this disease be brought under control. We pray to the Lord.
And for all who seek comfort, that they may find it in God’s healing word; and that God may hear the intentions found in our parish prayer list. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Father God, we your people come to you this day fully aware that we need your presence and your help in our lives, yet aware as well that we often fail to stop and turn to you for that help. We get caught up in the troubles and the turmoil of daily living; we become busy with the goals that we have set for ourselves and those that come to us from our work and our families and our friends. We strive to be loving, we seek joy and peace, we desire to be gentle and patient and kind, to show goodness, and to have self-control; and yet these things all too often elude us. Help us, Lord, to root ourselves more deeply in you; to seek your will for our lives; to stop and listen for your voice when we are troubled; to fully rely on you when we strive to do what is right; to remember you and trust in you when we are assaulted; to meditate on your goodness and your gracious will when we begin each day; so that we can truly commit to Equality, Service to God, Christian freedom, Pursuing happiness in community on this national holiday. We ask all these things through Christ our Lord.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor - St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA